Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Day Ten: Saint Michael's Mount

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Saint Michael’s Mount
Land’s End
Saint Ives

We plan to leave our Plymouth hotel very early, no later than 7:30 a.m., because we want to be on the Cornwall Coast looking out upon Saint Michael’s Mount by 9:00 a.m.

Saint Michael’s Mount occupies a small island a few hundred yards offshore from the Cornwall Coast. It is, in reality, a granite mountaintop rising from the sea, on which is situated an ancient castle with an ancient church at its very peak.

Saint Michael’s Mount is very similar to Mont Saint Michel in France (though nowhere near as impressive as the French version), and the similarities are owing to the fact that both islands were developed by the same religious order under the direction of a Benedictine Abbott in France. The British island was turned over to the Abbott of France’s Mont Saint Michel in 1075, nine years after The Norman Conquest, and the French Abbott modeled Britain’s Saint Michael’s Mount after France’s Mont Saint Michel. First, a church was built atop the island in 1135. Construction of the present castle followed, beginning in 1193.

Saint Michael’s Mount became independent of Mont Saint Michel in 1424, when Henry VI declared it to be a foreign priory and turned its affairs over to a British religious order, Syon Abbey, under whose control the Mount operated until it was closed in 1535, part of The Dissolution Of The Monasteries.

Saint Michael’s Mount had several different owners until 1659, when it became seat and residence of the Saint Aubyn family. The Saint Aubyn family continues to reside on Saint Michael’s Mount today. The family operates its various tourist enterprises under a 999-year leasehold, but it no longer owns the island—ownership of the island was transferred to The National Trust in 1954, as it had become too expensive for a single family to continue to maintain the island once Britain imposed draconian tax rates after World War II.

We hope that our arrival coincides with low tide, so that we may walk to the island on the lengthy causeway. Approaching Saint Michael’s Mount via the causeway, looking up at the beautiful buildings as they grow closer and closer, while the sea is only a few inches from one’s feet, lapping at the rocks on the causeway, is a miraculous experience.

If our arrival coincides with high tide, we will have to take a boat out to the Mount.

As one walks onto, or lands by boat on, the island, one notices a series of small but handsome stone cottages that surround the small port at seaside. These cottages are occupied by the full-time residents of Saint Michael’s Mount, about thirty in all, who earn their livings by working for the Saint Aubyn family, serving as gardeners and guides at the castle, or manning the two shops and the café and the restaurant, or manning the boat service. Additional workers commute to the island each day, because Saint Michael’s Mount is a major destination for visitors, British and foreign, and requires numerous employees for its maintenance.

We hope to arrive on the island by 9:45 a.m. We will stop and have coffee and cake in the delightful cafe at portside, and afterward walk up the steep, narrow, cobbled streets to the castle, which opens at 10:30 a.m. We hope to be inside the castle walls by 10:45 a.m., because we want to attend Sunday service in the church atop the castle. The church is the oldest part of the complex, purely medieval in design and construction. Its Sunday service occurs at 11:15 a.m.

After service, we plan to tour the castle. The stroll through the castle should take a couple of hours, because a number of rooms are open to the public and most of these rooms are quite fascinating, filled with the history of those who have lived in the castle over the centuries, as well as historic furniture, art, weapons and mechanical devices (one of which is an ancient clock that tells the movement of the tides, built to allow residents of Saint Michael’s Mount to plan their trips to the mainland via the causeway).

Most impressive are the entrance hall, the library, the Chevy Chase room (a room devoted to hunting—there is a frieze of hunting scenes encircling the room, and intricate stained glass panels portraying scenes from the hunt), the blue room, the drawing room, the map room and the garrison.

Once we have completed our visit to the castle, we will walk back down the cobbled streets and have a late, full lunch at the restaurant near portside, after which we will return to shore, whether by causeway or by boat.

From Saint Michael’s Mount, we will make the short drive to Land’s End, the westernmost point in England (but not in the United Kingdom—a portion of Scotland protrudes even further West).

Land’s End is typified by roughhewn limestone cliffs high above the sea, from which one may watch waves from the Atlantic Ocean crash against the rocks. It is a beautiful sight, but one must get a few hundred yards away from the kitschy Land’s End tourist shops that, happily, are all congregated in the tiny settlement. If one focuses on the settlement itself and only the settlement, Land’s End is perhaps the most ignominious tourist trap on the planet. If one ignores the settlement, and focuses on the natural beauty of the area, Land’s End is worth a short visit

My brother and I visited Land’s End early one morning in 2004. It was a dark, windy day, and the force of the wind from the Atlantic Ocean was bracing (and almost frightening). The dark sky and clouds gave Land’s End a very dramatic specter that day, and we enjoyed walking among the cliff tops.

I think that my parents and Josh and Josh’s sister will enjoy a brief visit to Land’s End. After we have spent some time out on the cliffs, we may even want to have afternoon tea at Land’s End’s only hotel. The hotel’s restaurant looks out upon the Atlantic, and offers views of the Isles Of Scully on a clear day.

From Land’s End, we will make the short drive to Saint Ives, an old fishing village that, over the last one and two centuries, has become first an artist colony and then a resort town.

We will check into our hotel, and afterward spend some time exploring the narrow alleyways of this ancient but charming village, with its ancient granite houses hugging each other in the long but narrow strip of land between the seashore and the high cliffs above the town.

I love Saint Ives. It is not a resort town like American resort towns. Its commercial establishments are genteel, and largely free of the kitsch that typifies American resort towns (and nearby Land’s End, too). Despite the tourists, Saint Ives is a real town, with real residents, whose ancestors have lived in this old town with its old stone buildings for centuries.

The buildings of Saint Ives are dark, almost black, granite. The skies are gray, even gloomy. The beach is gray, too, and this dark coloration lends the town the aura of a film set. Above the town is an array of Victorian mansions, many now turned into hotels, built by nouveau riche in the latter part of the 19th Century, when Saint Ives had become a fashionable vacation destination.

The lower part of the town is crammed with cafes, restaurants, coffee houses and teahouses, art shops, bookshops, antiquaries and shops selling seafaring memorabilia. There is even an old Woolworth’s, right out of the 1930’s, replete with the smell of peanuts roasting, probably one of the last such Woolworth’s stores anywhere in the world (at least it was still there in 2004).

I think my mother will love Saint Ives. The entire time my brother and I were in Saint Ives in 2004, we kept telling each other that our mother would love Saint Ives. We told her all about the town when we returned home, and she told us that she would love to visit Saint Ives some day. She very much looks forward to visiting the town this year. I hope she will not be disappointed.

After we have spent an hour walking around the town, we will locate a restaurant for dinner.

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